Does the Ban on Circumcision Restrict Religious Freedom?

By Meera Rajasooriar

Circumcision is a highly contested issue due to the permanency of its affects, and the fact that parents usually choose this for their 8 day-old sons has caused much debate and discussion. The infancy suggests impeding on the vulnerability of a young boy, which many human rights campaigners have argued goes against the right to bodily integrity. It is perhaps for this reason that the Council of Europe recently introduced a resolution clearly stating a desire to ban circumcision. However, would a ban such as this remove our right to religious freedom?

Yes. Yes, I am a die-hard liberal at heart, and yes, I believe in freedom for all. However, perhaps this goes against my central premise- by arguing against the ban on circumcision, am I in fact arguing against freedom for the young circumcised baby boy who does not yet know how to choose?

Circumcision could be argued to violate the physical integrity of the child, which I do not doubt. It does inflict an irreversible physical change on the young male who will then have to live with this decision, made by his parents, for the rest of his life. Despite this, these arguments seem to ignore or simply gloss over the crucial reason for circumcision to take place in the first place. Circumcision is a commandment for Jewish people, and it signifies unity with one another, and most importantly with God. This covenant with God is the single most significant ritual in Judaism to express the communion with their ancestors.

Personally, I believe that every person should be able to express themselves as they choose, religiously or otherwise. By removing such a fundamental aspect of Judaism, you infringe upon the Jewish identity, which is not a decision that I believe the Council of Europe should be making. Dare I even say that it has slightly anti-Semitic or xenophobic tones? Perhaps this is taking it too far, but the sentiment of it being a distinctly anti-Jewish resolution remains. As one of the main bodies for protecting human rights, the Council of Europe should remember the right to freedom of expression, including religious expression. One cannot necessarily place the right to bodily integrity over the right to religious freedom in such a simplistic manner.

I believe that the resolution, mimicking previous calls to ban circumcision in Germany amongst other countries in previous years, is inherently problematic for those recognising the significance of the ritual practice of circumcision. The one crucial part of the resolution we should not overlook, however, are the calls to ‘clean up’ the practice, creating uniformity in both practice as well as the covenant created with God.

I think that the Council of Europe needs to take a step down to remember why the Council began- to protect the rights of all individuals, religious or otherwise. By passing a resolution with such drastic implications, they would run the risk of severely offending the Jewish community. The main priority of the Council of Europe should be to remain a neutral body, able to protect the rights of everyone under its governance and this should continue to be the case regarding its involvement in debates surrounding circumcision.

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